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ACLC staff: Olga Fischer, senior researcher, coordinator.

ACLC PhD candidates affiliated to the group:  Imogen Cohen, Elisabetta Materassi

External staff: Ludovic De Cuypere (University of Ghent, Belgium), William Herlofsky (Nagoya Gakuin University, Japan), Masako Hiraga (Rikkyo University Tokyo), Christina Ljungberg (Zürich University, Switzerland), Piotr Sadowski (American College, Dublin, Ireland), Hendrik de Smet (Universiteit Leuven, Belgium), Klaas Willems (University of Ghent, Belgium).


Iconicity as a semiotic notion refers to a natural resemblance or analogy between the form of a sign (‘the signifier’) and the object or concept (‘the signified’) it refers to in the world or rather in our perception of the world. The similarity between sign and object may be due to common features inherent in both: by direct inspection of the iconic sign we may glean true information about its object. In this case we speak of ‘imagic’ iconicity (as in onomatopoeia, or photography) and the sign is called an ‘iconic image’. In language, the similarity is usually a more abstract analogy; we then have to do with diagrammatic iconicity which is based on a relationship between signs that mirrors a similar relation between objects or actions. Both imagic and diagrammatic iconicity are not clear-cut categories but form a continuum on which the iconic instances run from almost perfect mirroring (i.e. a semiotic relationship that is virtually independent of any individual language or system) to a relationship that becomes more and more suggestive or abstract and also more and more language- or system-dependent (i.e. in Peircean terms ‘symbolic’).
Contrary to the structuralist idea that language is fundamentally arbitrary, linguistic research in the twentieth century has shown that iconicity operates at every level of language (phonology, morphology, syntax) and in practically every known language. The process referred to as grammaticalization can also be seen to be related to iconicity, via the iconic principles of quantity and proximity as shown, among others, by John Haiman and Talmy Givón. Recent literary criticism has confirmed that iconicity is also pervasive in literary texts, from its prosody and rhyme, its lineation, stanzaic ordering, its textual and narrative structure to its typographic layout on the page.

Current Research Projects

Metaphor in academic discourse: a study of metaphoric language and L2 learning. Principal researcher E. Materassi

Metaphors are pervasive in both spoken and written language and in both literary and non-literary genres and registers; they can fulfil different functions, for example to inform, to persuade, or to elucidate. The goal of the project is to uncover how advanced L2 speakers learn to process and use metaphoric language in academic discourse. The research is both empirical (with a corpus-based study of metaphorical language in argumentative and academic discourse in Dutch and Italian and an evidence-based study of the processing and learning of metaphorical language in L2) and theoretical (with linguistic analysis of the data on the basis of theoretical models). The results of a quantitative corpus analysis and classification of linguistic metaphors - integrated with findings from cognitive linguistic research – will be the starting point of an evidence-based study of how L2 learners process and memorize metaphorical language. This evidence-based study will include suggestions for the practice of second language learning and teaching for advanced learners and for academic purposes.